Theatre review: The Last Lifeboat at Claire Trevor School of the Arts

Noah Wagner as J. Bruce Ismay in The Last Lifeboat at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts
Noah Wagner as J. Bruce Ismay in The Last Lifeboat at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts

Vicki Paris Goodman
Culture Writer

Is there more to the sinking of the Titanic than we’ve been told? Have we been misled by the usual account depicted in books, newspaper articles and movies covering the tragic event? The astonishing answers are yes and yes!

Having just enjoyed its world premiere at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts on the campus of UC Irvine, The Last Lifeboat brings one entirely plausible, indeed even likely, narrative to the fore. Chalk it up to the insatiable curiosity of an investigative mind, such as that of playwright Luke Yankee, that more reliable information regarding the maritime catastrophe is now seeing the light of day.

An award-winning author, producer and actor, Yankee couldn’t let go of a tidbit he learned as a tourist in Nova Scotia, not far from the place where the doomed luxury liner went down. The tour guide’s now fateful remark involved J. Bruce Ismay, the Englishman who had owned the White Star Line at the time of the sinking— the man whose vision built the Titanic.

Conventional wisdom tells us that Ismay was a money-grubbing coward who desperately sneaked aboard the Titanic’s very last starboard lifeboat disguised as a woman. Although some facts still remain obscure, we can say with certainty that this widely accepted and demonizing version of Ismay’s actions that night couldn’t be further from the truth. Ismay did occupy the last lifeboat, but the rest is the stuff of revenue-seeking newspaper sensationalism.

The Last Lifeboat might well have succeeded solely by virtue of the stunning revelations uncovered by Yankee’s research. But it need not, for the play goes far beyond the unveiling of new information. Indeed it leads us into the innermost thoughts of the main characters without an extraneous word nor scene to loosen its grip on our attention. Our awareness never turns away from Ismay’s often difficult life, his sometimes impossible decisions, his unwavering, yet still fallible, moral rectitude.

In an instant we are swept up in a very young Ismay’s childhood, with all the insecurities instilled by a domineering father whose demands on his son seem too rigid and harsh.

In a surprising departure from standard casting convention, Yankee doesn’t fill the part of the young Ismay with a child actor. Rather, he and innovative director/producer Don Hill rely on the extraordinary ability of mustachioed actor Noah Wagner to play Ismay from ages 7 (?) to 74 using age-appropriate speech and mannerisms to depict his character at various stages of life. George Almond plays Ismay’s impossible-to-please father Thomas Ismay, founder of the White Star Line.

Catherine Nickerson portrays the enchanting Vivian Hilliard, Ismay’s first love, who is separated from him when his father sends him on an extended business trip to New York. Ismay ultimately marries his lifelong wife Florence, played by charming Megan Gainey, another actor who successfully performs her character at various ages ranging from about 18 to perhaps her 60s.

Also noteworthy is actress Harriett Whitmyer who, as aggrieved survivor Mrs. Ryerson, testifies at the Congressional hearings only to find that her allegations against Ismay don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Given the meticulous complex development of the play’s other significant characters, I was surprised to see financier J. P. Morgan (also played by Almond) and newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Tom Juarez) rendered one-dimensional as the play’s antagonists. Most of the 13-member cast play multiple and diverse roles, often switching dialects and accents with ease and mastery.

Like an old-time newsreel, the play courses from story to story, pausing for us to view episodes from Ismay’s endearing two courtships, his promise to his father that he will construct the most impressive ship ever built, the gut-wrenching and economically forced decision to build the Titanic with the government-mandated minimum number of lifeboats, Ismay’s selfless actions after the disastrous collision with the iceberg, and his scapegoating by the newspapers and the U.S. Congress in the aftermath of the sinking.

John Iacovelli’s spare set comes to life as three floor-to-ceiling white sheets become projection screens for spectacular newspaper spreads and special effects, including the oncoming crash with the soaring iceberg! Outstanding effects by lighting designer Wes Chew emphasize the anguish in Ismay’s face at his most guilt-ridden.

Yankee doubles as dialect coach— upper-class English, cockney, Irish, and Scottish— Hill’s actors nailing each and every one.

In a final scene, just prior to Ismay’s death and after years that he and his family have spent in relative isolation, an uplifting occurrence completes the cycle of emotion we’ve all undergone.

This is theater the way it was meant to be. Like a time-traveling voyeur privy to the most tormented moments of a man’s life, at times I almost felt compelled to avert my gaze. The Last Lifeboat released me from its spell only when the play had ended, and honestly not even then.
The Last Lifeboat’s run at UC Irvine has concluded. But there is hope that at least one local theater will pick it up. You will want to experience this magnificent and inspiring theatrical event. I hope you get the chance.

The Last Lifeboat finished its world premiere run at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts on the campus of UC Irvine on Nov. 23.